The good, the bad and the ugly of vitamin supplements for PMS

I’m Not Easily Convinced By Pillsvitamin supplements - a pill for every ill?

Whether people know you suffer from PMS or not, you’ll probably have heard from friends, media pundits and women’s magazines that you should be taking vitamin supplements, either as a remedy for something specific or as a form of ‘just in case’ health insurance. 

Perhaps iron (for blood), vitamin C (for immunity), calcium (for bones), fish oil (for your heart) or a multi-vitamin (to cover all eventualities!)

I certainly bought into that thinking for many years.  I voraciously read all the health promotional literature and spent a shedload of money adding to my vitamin supplements stash.  I even convinced my friends to do likewise.  Not any more. (With a few exceptions).

I’m not really a fan of vitamin supplements any more – even though this feels like swimming against the tide where the holistic and alternative health community is concerned.  Yet I’m healthier than ever and largely PMS-free.  I take a small number of very targeted, evidence-based supplements (which are based on herbs or dehydrated foods rather than laboratory-synthesised vitamins) and spend most of time and money on making sure I eat well and live well.

Why have I changed my views?  Well, I think it’s easy to get sucked into popping a handful of vitamin supplements without really knowing whether you need them.  Or if they’re actually doing you any good.  Vitamin supplements are not foods (which are nature’s natural vitamin supplements) and they probably should be thought of more as medications.  In which case, why would you take a medication if you didn’t know that you really needed it, didn’t know how long you should take it for, and couldn’t say if it was making a difference?

Vitamin Supplements Aimed at Women with PMS

I know from experience that when you’re enduring PMS over endless months and years, you seek out any remedy going and try whatever you can.  And vitamin supplements promise all manner of solutions in a convenient (though usually not cheap) package.  These claims are very seductive and offer a lifeline to women who are often at the end of their tether.  But a few words of caution:

  • Getting a vitamin supplements ‘habit’ can quickly become a money pit – there may be better and more enjoyable ways of investing in your health
  • Every woman is different so random off-the-shelf supplementation based on a ‘one size fits all’ ideal is unlikely to be effective
  • Vitamin supplements may only be treating the symptoms of PMS or any other imbalance, rather than going to the root cause

My experience of PMS is that a successful long-term solution involves looking at all aspects of your health, not just taking a programme of pills.  I think what you eat is right at the top of the list of what works to improve your mood and overall health and switching to a whole foods, plant-based diet delivers vitamins and minerals, essential fatty acids and amino acids without the need for vitamin supplements. 

We’re Designed for Foods and Herbs – Not Vitamin Supplements

pros and cons of vitamin supplements

Isn’t it just common sense to get nutrients through real, healthy, wholesome food?  That’s what we’re built for and how we evolved.  I’ve already written about studies showing that getting your B vitamins through food rather pills is most effective for PMSMost of the water-soluble B vitamins come out in your wee shortly afterwards anyway, and the same is true of around 75% of the vitamin C in expensive high-dose supplements.  All these excess vitamins go swishing into the water chain too, which is something else to think about.

Yet vitamin supplements are big business, and the industry is growing all the time.  The Foods Standards Agency in 2006 reported that we are annually spending over £220 million annually on vitamin supplements in the UK alone.   Meanwhile, the supermarkets temp us with more and more cheap, poor quality, overprocessed, de-natured foods.  As a nation, we’re more and more overfed, and yet increasingly undernourished and trying to fill the gaps with vitamin supplements.  This is crazy.  It’s completely the wrong way round.

The Downsides of Vitamin Supplements

There are some specific reasons why I believe individual vitamin supplements should be looked at closely on their merits and not seen as some sort of universal panacea.

High Dose Vitamin Supplements Can Be Harmful

There is increasing evidence that some vitamins, especially the antioxidants Vitamin A, beta-carotene, and vitamin E, are harmful in high doses.  This review of 67 randomised clinical trials with over 230,000 subjects, including healthy people (taking vitamin supplements for prevention) and those with various diseases (taking vitamins to help their illnesses).  The conclusion was that it’s safer to obtain the vitamins you need by eating plenty of fruit and vegetables rather than as vitamin supplements.

Nutrition is THE SUM OF PARTS

It’s not right to isolate individual nutrients and their outcomes -doing so amounts to what what one eminent biochemist, Dr T. Colin Campbell calls “pharmacology not nutrition”

The body is an amazingly wonderful system and the nutrients from the fuel we eat work together through a complex interplay of chemical processes.  Everything is interconnected.

Absorption and Digestion Matter

It’s one thing for a tablet or capsule to give a reading in a laboratory and quite another when it’s being used inside the body.  Which is why there’s a world of difference between the reading in a lab on that chunky, inorganic, calcium tablets and the way your body actually extracts calcium and processes it (a post for another time!)

The Good Guys – Some Exceptions

Herebs like agnus castus are natural vitamin supplemenentsI’m not against all supplements.  There are certain herbs or dehydrated foods which I think do act as useful allies for women with PMS.  Sometimes it’s more convenient and appropriate to take them in capsule form, and there are instances when natural products have properties which make them safe alternatives to pharmaceuticals like antidepressants or synthetic hormone treatments.  Any supplement should be approached with caution and questions asked about how worthwhile it is, but examples of herbs and supplements which are currently on my ‘green light’ list are:

I’ll write separate posts about each of these in the coming weeks, but I wanted to explain my overall approach first to give a bit of context.  I think in health, as in life, it’s often by keeping things simple and consistent that we get the best results, therefore my approach is pared down to what I trust and what is backed up by sound evidence of being most effective.

Thanks for reading!

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One thought on “The good, the bad and the ugly of vitamin supplements for PMS

  1. Great post! I take maca and chlorella but haven't really gotten in to the others you recommend. I should take a looksee! I know 5HTP is supposed to be fantastic. I look forward to your posts about each individual supplement.

    I think that we are all too obsessed with "nutrients" and fortifying things that wouldn't need be fortified if we just ate healthy, balanced diets. I totally agree that we are too invested in "pharmacology not nutrition".

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